Presidents and Patriotism: Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Photos and text by Laurie Williams Sowby

KEYSTONE, South Dakota – They’re an American icon, those four presidential faces carved into Mount Rushmore. The massive sculpture of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln is a sight that two million Americans make the trip to South Dakota to see every year, the great majority of them during the summer months.

But we took our four oldest grandkids – from nearly 9 to 13 years – on a mid-September sojourn that afforded us pleasant weather, uncrowded roads and trails at both the memorial and in adjacent Custer State Park, spacious seating in the amphitheater for the evening program, and plenty of room to roam in the Black Hills.

Click on all images to enlarge

Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota weathers the seasons,
but fall is a nicer time to visit.

Minus crowds, the kids were able to hike around Sylvan Lake (seen in the popular new “National Treasure” movie) and scale the Needles (huge pointed rocks) with hardly any competition.

I don’t think any of them will ever forget their first sight of the monument as we came around a bend that first afternoon. Part of their excitement came because they were prepared for what they would find and were familiar with the history of Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Laurie and Steve Sowby and the four oldest grandkids pose for a photo as they begin their visit to the memorial last September.

Every child had been required to answer Grandma’s emailed questions about the place before they could step onto the plane. (They earned a little spending money for each correct answer and a bag of snacks for the “final exam.”)

They knew about Idaho-born Gutzom Borlgum (son of a Danish Mormon convert), who sculpted the larger-than-life-size heads in his studio at the mountain’s base, and how the measurements were projected onto the granite so men could set dynamite sticks to blast off the excess rock. They knew that the 14-year project began in 1927 and had several dedications as each head was finished, until the sculptor died and his son Lincoln finished the details and closed down the project in 1941. They could tell you that Lincoln’s nose is 21 feet long and that the Black Hills only look that way because of the many dark-colored ponderosa pine that cover them.

Telescopes on the viewing terrace offer a close-up of detailed workmanship on the monuments. Lincoln’s eyes are 10 feet wide, and his nose is 21 feet long.

So they were ready to enjoy the exhibits and movie in the new Lincoln Borglum Museum and Bookstore, whose rooftop has served as the enlarged viewing plaza for a decade now. And two nights in a row, we seated ourselves in the nearly-empty 2,000-seat amphitheater to watch an unabashedly patriotic program that ended with lights illuminating the four famous faces. (They’re still lit at dusk October-March, but with no formal program.)

The Lincoln Borglum Museum, named for the artist’s son who completed the project after Gutzon Borglum’s death, features displays and a movie explaining how the sculptures were created – incredibly, without today’s modern technology.

Before that lighting and a big-screen video titled Freedom, military veterans in the audience were invited to the stage. The grandkids were all surprised to discover their grandpa had served in the U.S. Army more than three decades ago.